Our Vegan Month Progress: Week 3, Checking Privilege and Staying the Course

A vegan mainstay for us this month: polenta soup with miso. . J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Serious Eaters Ed, Leang, and Ben are going vegan for the month alongside Kenji. Last week they talked about cheating with meat in their dreams and taming hunger pangs. How are they doing now that they're more than halfway through?

Leang: Checking My Vegan Privilege

So far in February I've subsisted on a steady diet of chips, avocados, and noodle things. In all honesty, cutting out animal products has been completely uneventful—no stories of chewing on styrofoam, getting kicked out of bars, or binging on beef jerky in the middle of the night while my boyfriend sleeps. From Google, Reddit, and dozens of detailed websites, there are enough online resources to make informed decisions about how to live a vegan lifestyle. In this day and age, finding out if something is vegan is as easy as settling a Wikipedia argument with your friends.

But I can't ignore the role my socio-economic privilege has played in making veganism relatively easy for me. New York City is one of the most vegan-friendly cities in America. We have the fantastic Dirt Candy, Taim, Paulie Gee's, and the ever-multiplying $10+ salad places popping up to supply us with great options. Hell, even our corner bodegas in Bed-Stuy stock kale chips. When I was off in suburban Connecticut this past weekend, I subsisted off of pretzels, onion rings, and far too many chain "Mediterranean" veggie sandwiches with a passing semblance to their namesakes only because of a light smear of hummus.

Veganism has been easy because I have the skills and time to cook. I like the opportunity to spend more time in the kitchen, but dinner takes longer to prepare than usual. Prepping vegetables is more labor-intensive than meat. I need greater volumes of vegetables to feel full, especially once their water cooks out, and they all take time to clean and chop. Dinners that would normally take 40 minutes from start to finish now top an hour with all the extra work.

I'm also lucky enough to be flexible with my budget. Beans and rice are affordable vegan staples, but they get boring quickly, and I can afford some vegan luxuries. I've been adding creaminess and body to some dishes with a homemade cashew cream as a substitute for ricotta. An $8 container of cashews from my supermarket makes me about two cups of cream; compare that to a quart of actual heavy cream, which costs all of $2.50. So far I've spent about 15% more on food this month, which is fine for me since I can spend less elsewhere or simply eat the cost.

But I think about the mother or father of two who has to stretch their paycheck a whole lot further than I do, and I question how viable a vegan lifestyle can be for someone of limited means. Vegan cooking can certainly be affordable, but that means you spend more time cooking. It can be quick with minimal effort, but that requires living in a place with plentiful vegan options—and having the money to pay for eating out.

When all you're focused on is getting food on the table after pulling second shift, a vegan lifestyle isn't entirely practical. My mom, while working her two jobs and supporting her ravenous teenage sons, barely had time to make an omelet some nights. A vegan lasagna with mushrooms, zucchini, spinach, and cashew ricotta was out of the question.

I'm thankful that I have the means to do this vegan challenge without it seriously disrupting my life, but I also recognize that's not possible for everyone.

Ed: Sticking to (and Straying From) the Course

The truffles of desire. Max Falkowitz

I have to say I've even surprised myself by how strictly I've observed the rules I set for myself at the beginning of this year's vegan experience, including not eating white sugar refined with bone char. But everything has its exceptions. I cheated a little with some exceptional bonbons from a new shop near the Serious Eats office—Stick With Me Sweets—and bone char sugar was the least of their non-vegan problems. But I couldn't help my curiosity in the face of candies that cost $3.50 each (all in the service of journalism, right?), and I have to say they were awesome—intensely flavored, an incredibly creamy consistency on the inside, and the outer shell just tasted like great chocolate instead of chocolate-flavored soap. When you taste something that good, you're transported to a zone of serious deliciousness, vegan or not, and the rules you've chanted like a mantra go out the window. The ultimate irony is that after I tasted them I learned the shop does sell one vegan bonbon. Next time.

But I digress. Back to the white sugar saga. Banning bone char-refined sugar has meant letting go of my beloved Kind Bars, but I'm sticking with my tofu-scallion cream cheese, which has a tiny amount of sugar, because Kenji have me a pass.

In general, I think you have to be pretty strict with your rules, otherwise it becomes a slippery slope. Last year I decided to take small bites of non-vegan items in restaurants I was eating in, but this year I decided that wasn't necessary. And it turns out it hasn't been.

My major concern with a vegan diet in general is, as Kenji warned me, a tendency for some (like me) to treat it like a carb festival. Yippee! I can eat potato chips until I feel nauseous, and I can order fries whenever I'm in a restaurant that makes good ones, and I can have pretzels and peanuts and cashews until I have finished off a box or bag without even knowing it. So I have had to fight the urge to have a bagel sweetened with malt, place an order of excellent fries from a place like Taim, or eat pasta or noodles every day.

To fight off these carbohydrate urges, I force myself to eat more vegetables and salads. That of course is a good thing.

I love knowing that, when necessary, I can eat less meat and dairy. I have a feeling that once February is over I will end up eating more vegetarian and/or vegan meals. And the best thing is I will do so without feeling penalized or deprived.

Ben: Building Better Vegan Habits

Vegan soba at New York's Cocoron is always a good move. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

This week I had some vegan restaurant adventures. On Monday we had a great meal at Blossom, a popular West Village vegetarian restaurant—the orecchiette with a cashew cream-based alfredo sauce with soy chorizo is something I would have turned my nose up at last month, but it really hit the spot. It was everything I wanted on a freezing cold day, rich and filling, far from health food in a good way, and so different from classic alfredo sauce that the discrepancy wasn't an issue.

I also scaled what I've come to think of as Vegan Everest: a Chili's restaurant in Poughkeepsie. We sat down assuming we'd be eating onion rings, french fries, and chips with guacamole for dinner, but we were saved from that deep fried carb overload by our helpful server, who showed us that we could see a menu of vegetarian substitutions on a table side tablet kiosk computer. I ended up with veggie fajitas, basically what I would have ordered anyway, just without the meat and butter, which I didn't really miss. (Of course, we still got the chips and guacamole.)

Probably the best part of being a vegan is that my avocado intake has skyrocketed to something like three per week. Oh, and soba specialist Cocoron is just as fantastic when you're a vegan. And I've always been a fan of the vegan chicken banh mi at Banh Mi Saigon, which is as true now as it's ever been. As my friend Bonnie, a longtime vegan, told me when I told her I'd be doing this: Being a vegan in New York City is easy!

Overall, I have to say I feel pretty good. I definitely miss cheese and pizza and wings a whole lot, but generally I think that I'm finding that clean living is a real thing.

I'm still not great at stocking snacks in the office, which leads to a pretty steep drop-off in my energy level in the afternoon on some days. I'm doing a little better on that front as the month goes on. Carrots with hummus and popcorn are my favorites right now. And as I've chosen to eat white sugar in my vegan diet, I've been going in pretty hard on Kind bars, just trying to avoid the ones with honey.

Kenji's polenta soup with miso was the best thing that I made this week, something I will definitely continue to make once this experiment ends. And in addition to toast with beans and avocado, oatmeal is a godsend for breakfast; the best oatmeal I made myself this week had soy sauce, sesame oil, cilantro, and tofu mixed in.